I’ve been revisiting the most compelling sports book I’ve ever read: Muhammad Ali: His Life And Times by Thomas Hauser (Pan 1997).
It’s essentially an oral history; Hauser simply acts as a linkman between tracts of direct quotation. I think he’s interviewed everyone who has ever passed with three feet of Ali – and, these being boxing people, they are voluble, opinionated and incredibly entertaining.
My favourite contributor is Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s doctor for much of his fighting career. It’s true, he’s a crotchety son-of-a-bitch (firing wiseguy jibes at his meek Brit interviewer in this excellent documentary on Joe Frazier and the Thriller in Manila). But he sure knows how to talk.
In Hauser’s book, as the heartbreaking story of Ali’s decline draws to a close and Ali’s 1980 beating by Larry Holmes looms, Pacheco opens an entire crate of medical whup-ass on Dr Charles Williams. Williams was the doctor to the verminous Nation Of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad and his son, Herbert, Ali’s manager.
Ali is lucky he lived through the Holmes fight [Pacheco says]. And as far as Charles Williams is concerned, I don’t like to talk badly about another doctor, but I think the facts speak for themselves.
I first became aware of Charles Williams in Zaire [for the Ali-Foreman fight], when he announced that Ali was tired because he had hypoglycaemia. That means low blood sugar … The one thing in red letters that you cannot in any way, shape or form do is give someone with hypoglycaemia more sugar. That’s the last thing you do unless you’re trying to kill them … You’d get thrown out of medical school if you reached third year and didn’t know that.
Pacheco recalls that Williams’ prescription was for Ali to eat a peach cobbler with ice-cream just before the fight. Pacheco was surprisingly tactful (“Here’s a doctor; he treats Herbert. I can’t tell him he’s an ignoramus”). He suggested to Williams that it might not be a good idea for Ali to eat pudding before the fight (“because the possibility exists that George Foreman will punch him in the stomach,” is Pacheco’s dry explanation).
‘So what we’ll do is, we’ll fill a bottle with orange juice and sugar, make sort of an orange syrup, and give it to Ali between rounds.’ Williams said ‘Great!’ We mixed the bottle. And that bottle is still out in the jungle somewhere between N’Sele and Kinshasa.
Pacheco quit when Ali, against all good sense, decided to fight on into his late 30s. Before his hideous beating by the young champion Larry Holmes, Ali was dosed with the thyroid extract Thyrolar by Charles Williams because Williams thought that he looked hypothyroid.
Here’s another doctor, Dennis Cope at UCLA Medical Center, who monitored Ali’s health after the fight:
I don’t know for sure, but I can infer that, prior to medical intervention, Muhammad’s thyroid was functioning properly, because since then without medication it has functioned properly. And when a person’s thyroid gland malfunctions, it’s usually a long-term problem.
Very tactful, these doctors.
Williams’ contributions to Hauser’s book don’t do him any favours (“It was stupid to think he was going to win; I just wanted to get him in good enough shape, and sure enough, he looked good… As soon as I gave him just a little bit of Thyrolar, whoom, he shot back up… People were saying I really knew what I was doing, and as soon as he lost they started blaming it on me”).
Back to Pacheco for the final word on the Holmes fight:
Ali was a walking time-bomb in the ring that night. He could have had anything from a heart attack to a stroke to all kinds of bleeding in the head. It’s not up to me to make a judgement as to whether Charles Williams is competent to practice medicine. That’s up to a medical board in the state of Illinois, where he practices. He’s got his credentials, and that’s that.
But Ali-Holmes was a horrible end for a great champion, and years later, I’m still pissed off about it.
Here’s the fight. It’s not nice to watch. While we’re at it, here’s another piece I wrote on another sad end for a fighter.